Jean Rouch’s prolific film career began in French West Africa, where he worked as a civil engineer during World War II, supervising road and bridge construction. Previously, in Paris, he had attended the lectures of Marcel Mauss and Marcel Griaule. In 1946, traveling down the Niger River, Rouch shot his first film with a 16mm Bell and Howell camera, developing an original style after the tripod fell in the water. Later, he enlisted the help of Damoure, a Sorka friend, to film a hippopotamus hunt, and thus began a productive collaboration that has lasted almost four decades. Damoure took sound for Les Maitres Fous, was a central character in Jaguar, and worked with Rouch on many other films, as did several of Rouch’s long-standing African friends and co-workers.
Rouch’s innovative approaches effected more than anthropological film. In the summer of 1960, Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin shot Chronique d’Un Ete’ (Chronicle of a Summer), a film dealing with Parisians’ thoughts and feelings at the end of the Algerian war. In Chronique, now considered a pioneering “cinema-verite” film, the formerly invisible barrier between the “objective” filmmaker and his subject dissolved. The viewers see the filmmaker approach his subjects on the boulevards of Paris, inquiring, “Are you happy?” Technically, Chronique also furthered the development of a more efficient, portable, synchronous sound system that permitted the filming of longer, unbroken sequences.
Although Rouch is best known for Chronique, and for the inspiration that it offered to New Wave filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Goddard and Francois Truffaut, his most striking contributions to film remain more than seventy ethnographic films made in West Africa. From the 1940s until the present, Rouch has produced films in Ghana, Niger, Mali, and Upper Volta, ranging from straightforward portrayals of extraordinary ritual events, such as Les Maitres Fous, to “collective improvisations” such as jaguar, or, more recently, Cocorico! Monsieur Poulet, based on a Niger folk tale.
In the West, Rouch’s distinctive vision of the cultures of West Africa has influenced students of anthropology, of ritual, and of Africa. But his influence has been significant on the African continent as well, where he consistently attempted to introduce film technology and to train technicians as he worked. Moustapha Alassane and Oumarou Ganda of Niger, Safi Faye of Senegal, and Desire Ecare of Ivory Coast are among the contemporary filmmakers who once worked with Rouch.
Stoller, Paul “The Cinematic Griot: The Ethnography of Jean Rouch” University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Adams, John W. “Jean Rouch Talks About His Films to John Marshall and John W. Adams,” American Anthropologist 80:4. December 1978.
Beidelman, Thomas O. Review of Jaguar, American Anthropologist 76:3. September 1974.
Georgakas, Dan and Udayan Gupta, Judy Janda. “The Politics of Visual Anthropology: An Interview with Jean Rouch,” Cineaste 8:4. 1978.
Muller, Jean Claude. Review of Les Maitres Fous, American Anthropologist 73: 1971.
Rouch, Jean and Steven Feld. “Cine-Ethnography” University of Minnesota Press. March 2003
Rouch, Jean. La Religion et la Magie Songhay. Presses Universitaires de France. 1960.